Citizens in communities affected by cancer-causing air pollution from vinyl manufacturers went to court today to ask the federal government to regulate the host of toxins released from these plants.
The nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit today in federal district court in Washington, DC, on behalf of the Sierra Club and two community groups in Louisiana -- Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) and Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).
Each year, PVC plants pump some 500,000 pounds of vinyl chloride -- a known human carcinogen -- and many other toxins into the atmosphere. In spite of the documented effects of these cancer-causing chemicals, the federal government has bowed to pressure to keep the PVC industry's air emissions largely unregulated.
Mossville, Louisiana, with its four vinyl production facilities, including two major vinyl chloride manufacturers, is considered the unofficial PVC capitol of America. Mossville residents Edgar Mouton and Dorothy Felix have spent much of the past decade fighting to protect their families from the cancer-causing chemicals raining down upon their community.
"We're being hit from the north, south, east, and west. Every time the wind changes, we get a lungful of pollution from some other plant." said Edgar Mouton, a Mossville resident and retired chemical plant employee. "These chemicals end up in our water, our gardens, our children's bodies. Each day we hear about someone in our community being diagnosed with cancer or another illness. We're taking legal action so that we might live to see some improvements for ourselves and our community."
Louisiana is home to six of the nation's 21 plants manufacturing polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC or vinyl. Six more plants are located in Texas. The remaining plants are found in New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.
"Air pollution from PVC plants is a serious problem in Louisiana. In Baton Rouge alone, we have four of these plants and they're talking about building a fifth," said Gary Miller an engineer with Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "This is one of our region's most toxic industries. It only makes sense that it be subject to correspondingly strong rules."
A 2004 federal court ruling in a case brought by Earthjustice on behalf of MEAN and Sierra Club found the EPA's lax approach to regulating air pollution from PVC plants violated the law and threw out the insufficient standards. Four years later, the agency has yet to develop any new standards and dangerous pollution continues to spew from PVC plant smokestacks.
Today's lawsuit was filed to force the agency to comply with the Clean Air Act's requirement to issue lawful standards for all hazardous pollutants emitted from PVC plants. If successful, the suit would trigger protections against a host of harmful pollutants.
"You won't often hear an attorney use a word like 'heartbreaking.' But what is happening to the people who live in the shadow of these plants is, quite simply put, heartbreaking." said Earthjustice attorney Katie Renshaw who filed today's lawsuit. "We're going to court to see, once and for all, that limits are placed on the dangerous chemicals raining down on communities from PVC plants."
The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set emission standards for each hazardous air pollutant PVC plants emit. But the EPA in 2002 decided to set standards for just one: vinyl chloride.
This leaves plants' emissions of dioxins, chromium, lead, chlorine, and hydrogen chloride -- substances associated with a wide variety of serious adverse health effects including cancer -- entirely unchecked. Further, the sole standard adopted, for vinyl chloride, did not require plants to reduce emissions of this known human carcinogen for which no level of exposure is known to be safe. Air monitoring conducted by the EPA has shown that PVC plants have emitted concentrations of vinyl chloride at more than 120 times higher than the ambient air standard.
"EPA has turned a blind eye to a heavily polluting industry and they've turned a deaf ear to citizen's reasonable requests for meaningful limits on air pollution from PVC plants," said Marti Sinclair, Chair of Sierra Club's National Air Committee. "We're left with little choice but to bring this matter before a judge."
Perhaps the most striking example of the need for stronger protections is in Mossville, where health studies found blood levels of dioxin rivaling those seen in workers involved in industrial accidents. Randomly tested residents had levels nearly ten times the national average, with some individuals showing dioxin levels 100 times the national average. Toxicologists studying these results called them some of the highest levels ever reported in the United States from an environmental exposure.
A 1998 study by the Medical Branch of the University of Texas, Galveston found that 99 percent of Mossville residents suffered from at least one disease or illness related to toxic chemical exposure.
PVC is used in a range of plastic products from vinyl siding, plumbing, carpet backing, and appliances to raincoats and seat covers. The industry is projected to grow in coming years, but several manufacturers have come under fire in the past for irresponsible practices:
- PVC manufacturer Formosa accidentally released 8,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the atmosphere from its Baton Rouge, La. plant in 2003.
- In 2004, the Keysor-Century plant in Saugus, CA paid $4 million in penalties in 2004 for lying about the high levels of carcinogens it was releasing into the air.
- A federal safety board found PVC manufacturer Formosa, Inc. did not do enough to prevent a 2004 explosion that killed five workers at its Illiopolis, Ill plant.
- And in October 2005, a Formosa employee struck a liquid propylene line with a forklift at the firm's plastics and chemicals plant in Point Comfort, Texas. That accident caused a fire that burned for five days and injured 12 people.
Read the lawsuit (PDF)
Katie Renshaw/Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500,
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.